The large billboard that was prominently displayed along the northbound side of I-5 just south of the Kasson Road exit near Tracy, Calif., for many years proclaimed “No-till farmers do their share to clean the air” and was probably viewed by millions of passersby.

Whenever I drove by, I marveled at the incredible visibility and huge positive impact that the sign must have had for farmers throughout the region. 

The problem was that there were likely no more than a handful of no-till farmers within a 100-mile radius of the sign. Sure, you could say that for many years farmers of perennial crops such as citrus, nuts and grapes now tend to use less soil-degrading tillage than in the past. However, for the vast majority of annual crops — to which the term “no-till” customarily applies — tillage-intensive practices are still very much the norm. 

This little inconvenient fact was somehow lost in the false impression that the sign conveyed.

Born of the recognition that maintaining the function or health of soil for crop production is a major requirement of agricultural systems and of global food security, a variety of soil health movements have recently achieved unprecedented visibility. During the past 5 years (2017-2021), the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service has provided over $160 million in funding assistance for soil-health-related conservation activities on over 2,000 projects in California through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP)  and Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP). 

The California Department of Food and Agriculture’s (CDFA) Healthy Soils Program, started in 2017, is also designed to have similar impacts and benefit.

To date, CDFA has invested over $40 million through more than 618 projects incentivizing adoption of core soil health management practices. That’s a lot of state and federal dollars.

Over the years, farmers and researchers have explored various approaches and techniques to optimize soil functions that are essential for productive and profitable farming. These efforts have resulted in critical soil care principles that include:

  1. reduction of soil disturbance
  2. providing the soil armor by retaining surface residues to reduce erosion, and soil water evaporation
  3. enhancing biological diversity to impart resilience and
  4. maximizing exploration and longevity of living roots.

Together, these principles and practices have become broadly and internationally known as “conservation agriculture” systems.

Incentives programs

Government incentive initiatives such as CDFA’s Healthy Soils Program and NRCS’s Soil Health Campaign, however, tend to focus on individual practices rather than support systems-based approaches. By and large, the full complement of soil health principles is likely not being implemented in many instances of either of these programs. This can end up negating the avowed comprehensive systems goals for soil health management that the agencies endorse.

Whether such government incentives programs ever result in broad-scale, long-term improvements in how our state’s agricultural soils are managed remains to be seen. Addressing the real needs for soil care and mustering the resolve and techniques to achieve the underlying goals and principles of soil health won't be an easy undertaking. 

Major shifts in the mindsets of farmers to actually make the changes that soil health principles call for are needed rather than (dare I say) buying into the incremental free-money piecemeal incentives that are currently promoted. While a few farms are doing this now, the vast majority of folks are far from achieving significantly improved soils as the public agencies endorse.

Why is change so difficult

Why is there this apparent disconnect between soil health principles being understood and pursued by some, but ignored by so many others? Why is change so difficult to accomplish in the farm community?

Some historical perspective might be useful here. Back in the first half of the 19th century, a surprisingly similar challenge was being faced in our country about how soil ought to be cared for. Described in the book, “Larding the Lean Earth: Soil and Society in the Nineteenth Century,” by Steven Stoll, a national debate unfolded about whether agriculture ought to preserve good husbandry and soil stewardship of farmland with the Eastern Seaboard region of the 13 original colonies, or whether those lands should be essentially abandoned after the soil’s capacity was depleted and production should then be moved to new open lands further and further west.

Answering this question led to protracted political debates over several decades with farmers themselves taking stands and writing bulletins to influence other farmers about what the best course of action should be. The debate settled into two camps: the “improvers,” who argued that good soil care at existing farms was what was needed; and those who saw agriculture’s future in westward migration.

It may seem hard to believe, but 200 years ago, people argued about the urgency of alarms and calls to action for greater attention to soil health. Today’s situation is thus not new. Some farmers are heeding the call to improve their soils, while the majority today are clearly not.

Conservation Agriculture Systems Innovation

Some 30 years ago, we embarked upon the reduced tillage disturbance research and development work in California’s annual cropping systems through the Conservation Agriculture Systems Innovation Workgroup, which we have been pursuing with leading farmers throughout the state.

I was initially encouraged by a farmer friend of mine from South Dakota who said, “Take the hardest crop you can think of and show that it can work.”

That was a very challenging encouragement indeed. For example, small-seeded high-value vegetables are not going to be easy candidate crops with which to achieve greater integration of the core soil health principle.

There is now a growing group of farmers who are actively striving to realize these very challenging paradigm shifts throughout California. Their pioneering leadership is not without obstacles, but the mindset changes and the dedication that they have taken on are nothing short of inspiring for the rest of mainstream agriculture.

Given the marketplace seemingly ready now, more than ever before, to reward food production systems and outcomes that focus on improved soil health and greater efficiencies with water capture and storage by soils, these farmers are considerably ahead of the curve in terms of making the requisite mindset changes and realizing improved performance production systems.

However, to achieve the true dedication to the core principles of soil health, it will take far more than most people are currently willing to do. For many, whether to adopt more ambitious soil health-improving systems turns, of course, on economics.

“I am in production agriculture. I can only make changes that preserve or improve my bottom line” is often given as the obstacle to change.

This perspective also subtly exposes another obstacle that is often just below the surface of these types of arguments. Ray Archuleta, a former NRCS employee and member of the agency’s original Soil Health Division, in his retirement and as a founding member of the traveling Soil Health Academy is fond of pointing out that when it comes to soil health, we may have become accustomed to working with an essentially “degraded resource” and that we no longer actually recognize good soil function or health.

Whether California row crop farmers accept this statement is doubtful. But when such growers have come to accept ponded water in the low parts of their fields following rainfall events, very low soil structural stability, or high soil water evaporation in their soils as normal, it would seem that Archuleta’s “degraded resource” idea is perhaps the norm. Maybe people have never seen good soil health and how valuable it may be for the long-term viability of their enterprises.

Multiple benefits of improved soil health

How could the soil health of California’s annual cropland be improved?

First, we need hard information about the current state of the coupled use of soil health principles. This could presumably be created by annual surveys or monitoring by our state’s premier conservation agency, NRCS, to see where California soils stand vis-à-vis implementation of the combined use of soil health practices.

Second, setting higher eligibility standards to public incentives programs. Applicants to these programs should demonstrate far greater systems integration of the core soil health principles than what appears to be currently required.

Third, our own soon-to-be-published long-term research in the San Joaquin Valley provides very strong evidence for combined use of fundamental soil health principles improving soil health compared to conventional practices for an annual crop rotation common to the region. Our data suggest that farmers stand to gain multiple benefits for the coupled use of these practices by increasing soil structural stability, water infiltration and storage, and agroecosystem biodiversity while improving the efficiencies of the carbon, nitrogen and water cycles in their production systems.

These improvements represent opportunities that are currently not being realized in annual crop fields throughout the region. While the up-front implementation outlays may discourage initial adoption, the common good costs of achieving such sustained ecosystem improvement rightly need to be borne by our food system at large, rather than farmers themselves. 

More robust market- and outcome-based mechanisms will be needed to help farmers make these critically important changes.

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